Cindi Ross Scoppe

Latest flag flareup highlights problems with Heritage Act

The Confederate Flag in South Carolina

The Heritage Act, which the Legislature amended on July 9, 2015, in order to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds — a mandate carried out on a sunny morning one year ago Sunday, in a solemn seven-minute ceremony attended by 10,
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The Heritage Act, which the Legislature amended on July 9, 2015, in order to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds — a mandate carried out on a sunny morning one year ago Sunday, in a solemn seven-minute ceremony attended by 10,

THE SECESSIONISTS are right: Gov. Nikki Haley broke the law when she ordered the Coastal Carolina flag flown from the State House dome to celebrate the school’s national baseball championship.

And the governor, as usual, brushed aside the criticism, ignored the legalities and said, essentially, why should I obey a law that doesn’t make sense?

Secessionist group: Haley broke law flying university flag

That pattern of breaking the law and acting as though it simply doesn’t matter would make Hillary Clinton blush. But this is not a column about Gov. Haley, who clearly acted with the best of intentions.

This is a column about the Heritage Act, which the Legislature amended on July 9, 2015, in order to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds — a mandate carried out on a sunny morning one year ago Sunday, in a solemn seven-minute ceremony attended by 10,000 and punctuated by understandable but unseemly cheers and chants.

That was good for our state, but it produced unrealistic expectations, and unforeseen consequences.

The flag wasn’t even off the pole before the focus shifted to what comes next. Its most ardent opponents suffered under the delusion that South Carolinians’ desire to remove a flag that caused such pain to their neighbors would translate into a crusade to remove other reminders of the ugly parts of our past. Its most ardent defenders suffered under the same delusion — or perhaps paranoia.

When it became clear that they were all wrong, we got … a lawsuit. “Hell no” rallies with a flag wheeled in on a portable pole. Congressional efforts to dictate state policy. And most bizarrely, those bullying complaints about the governor raising the flag of our new national champs.

None of that has made much difference, which is good, because that’s not how we’re supposed to resolve our differences in a representative democracy.

ON NAMING RIGHTS: What’s in a name: history, or values?

ON MONUMENTS: Shouldn’t the owners of monuments get to decide their fate?

ON THE FLAG: The flag has been furled -- but what now?

ONE YEAR AGO: State of grace? Not at the State House

What Gov. Haley should have said after the secessionists complained was: “Oh my goodness, I had no idea this was against the law. I’m sorry I violated the law. But that’s a law we need to fix.” Because of course the state ought to be able to run a national champion’s flag up the state’s most important flag pole, just like we did (illegally) when USC won back-to-back baseball championships in 2010 and 2011 and (legally) when Clemson won a football championship in 1981.

That’s not the only change needed to the Heritage Act, which brought the flag off the State House dome in 2000 but included some shortsighted and troublesome provisions.

Greenwood Mayor Welborn Adams told The Associated Press that if the governor could violate that law, he ought to be able to as well. Of course, that’s not the way to solve his problem, which is that the law prohibits him from replacing the segregated plaques on a city war monument with integrated plaques. Neither is the lawsuit Mr. Adams filed claiming the Legislature has no right to tell his city what it can and can’t honor. The Heritage Act is not, as far as I can tell, unconstitutional. It’s simply a bad law, from top to bottom.

At top is that language forbidding anything but the U.S. and S.C. flags flying over the State House. That’s unnecessary: No one is going to hoist a controversial banner atop the dome without a legislative order. And like most unnecessary laws, it has those unintended consequences — like prohibiting the spontaneous celebrations a governor ought to be able to initiate when the state has something big to celebrate.

At bottom is that sweeping section that says no state or local property “dedicated in memory of or named for any historic figure or historic event” can be “relocated, removed, disturbed, or altered” without approval by two-thirds of the House and Senate.

The Legislature has no more business telling cities and counties they can’t rescind honors than it would have saying they must. The Legislature has all the business in the world telling colleges and other state government entities what they can and can’t celebrate. It simply exercised bad judgment here.

READ THE 2016 bill that removed the Confederate flag from the State House grounds (click on the 7-7-15 version to see how the bill changed what was then law)

READ THE 2000 bill that enacted the Heritage Act (click on the May 18, 2000, version to see how the bill changed what was then the law)

Ideally, regardless of who’s making the decisions, most if not all monuments would stay; names, be they of roads, buildings, bridges or culverts, not so much.

But as long as we’re stuck with them, the best defense is a good offense. Greenwood should erect signs in front of its war memorial declaring: “We prefer not to celebrate segregation, but the S.C. Legislature has mandated that we must.” The Citadel might try that approach to the Confederate flag in its chapel. Clemson ought to invest in some larger signs, which explain why it doesn’t want to be associated with a man who urged whites to massacre blacks and why the school is appalled that it can’t restore “Tillman Hall” to its original name.

Other entities shackled with honors to dishonorable people and regrettable events should do likewise. What better way to preserve our history than to tell its full story, no matter how ugly it might be?

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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